Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rendezvous in Memphis, TN

The Rendezvous is one of the more famous barbecue restaurants in the country, on par with Arthur Bryant’s and Lexington #1 in their respective regions. A common question in Memphis is Corky’s or Rendezvous? For me, the answer has always been the Rendezvous.

My love affair with Rendezvous started as a senior in high school when I was on a visit to Rhodes college. I went with a family friend who had been going there for years, and we drank pitchers of Michelob (all they serve on draft) and threw down cheese plates and ribs. This is a good night anytime, but when you’re eighteen years old and drinking in a restaurant for the first time, it instantly shoots up to legendary status.

Rendezvous is set in an alley across from the Peabody Hotel. As you walk down Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Alley, the smell of charcoal, pork and Rendezvous’ spice mix wafts through the air. It’s an unforgettable smell.

If you go on a Friday or Saturday, you’ll likely have at least an hour wait, which is amazing because the place is absolutely enormous. Luckily they have an upstairs level where you can grab a pitcher of Michelob and sometimes even a cheese plate. You could also walk over to the Peabody for a drink and sit next to the famous duck fountain, but make sure you’re back in time.

Once your name is called, you walk downstairs to the main dining room and are overwhelmed by the sights, smells and sounds. Make sure you look back over your right shoulder to see the charcoal pits filled with loin back ribs. The décor on the walls is an eclectic mix of random pictures and well, just random crap. It looks like someone went into a vintage junk store and bought one of everything to hang on the walls. Its pretty cool.

The waiters are a Memphis tradition. Legend has it that the jobs are handed down through family connections and that most make six figures. This seems ridiculous at first, but when you start doing the math, you start to think it might be possible. Most of the staff has been there forever and all but one has an initial gruff greeting that says “hurry up and order”. They seem to be testing you out a bit. If you roll with it and your group is out to have a good time, they soon drop the attitude and become quick with a joke…and even quicker with your next pitcher of Michelob.

Then there’s Percy. He just can’t help but smile all the time. You hope he comes to your table often because he’s the kind of guy that helps white people loosen up and tap into that inner soul that we all long to let loose. His infectious personality also leads to you ordering one more pitcher of Michelob than you need, but that’s a problem for in the morning.

While they have other things on the menu, the only thing I’ve tried is the cheese plate and the ribs. The cheese plate is simply long rectangles of cheddar cheese, smoked sausage and dill pickles covered with a dusting of Rendezvous rub. The recommended method is to put some cheese and sausage on a Saltine, pour a little bit of their sauce on it and try to cram it all in your mouth at once. It’s fantastic.

Rendezvous serves only dry ribs. They cook the ribs over charcoal for a couple of hours, baste them with a hot vinegar and water mixture, and then apply a generous amount of rub. I recommend adding sauce to them. The sauce and rub have a very distinctive flavor that can become addictive.

Ten years ago, I thought Rendezvous’ ribs were the best in the world, and many people still feel the same way. But as my barbecue horizons have been broadened, I’ve come to realize that Rendezvous doesn’t really serve barbecued ribs. They serve slow grilled ribs with a great rub and sauce. It still tastes very good, but it lacks the true smoke flavor that ribs like the Bar-B-Q Shop have.

On this visit, Tommy JP and I joined my friend John and we polished off several pitchers of beer, a couple of cheese plates and four full orders of ribs. John has been in Memphis for over 15 years, and he agreed with my sentiment that Rendezvous is a great experience, but nowhere near the best barbecue in town.

Rendezvous is a must if you’re going to Memphis. It had the best atmosphere of any place on the trip and I’ll likely go back every time I visit because it’s always a good time. I’ll just make sure I hit the Bar-B-Q shop for lunch.

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